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Journal of World History 11.2 (2000) 265-303

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China, the West, and World History in Joseph Needham's Science and Civilisation in China *

Robert Finlay
The University of Arkansas


Long before the death of Joseph Needham in 1995 at the age of ninety-four, his Science and Civilisation in China was acclaimed as one of the monumental achievements of twentieth-century scholarship. One reviewer greeted the first volume in 1954 by declaring that Needham's project represents "perhaps the greatest single act of historical synthesis and intercultural communication ever attempted by one man." 1 When the twenty-eighth and last text in the series comes out sometime in the next ten years, the volumes will provide an encyclopedic survey of Chinese achievements in almost all areas of science and technology--physics, astronomy, metallurgy, chemistry, botany, agriculture, biology, language, geology, ceramics, and sericulture. 2 [End Page 265] Nothing like it exists for the history of Europe, and, given the special conditions that produced Needham's masterwork, it is unlikely that there ever will be.

One of the greatest scholars in the comparative study of civilizations, Needham discovered an entire realm of knowledge--"a veritable gold mine, a cornucopia"--and made it available to the world. 3 He possessed intellectual energy, passionate convictions, and a genius for relating seemingly disparate subjects to one another. He drew together the most recondite details on science and technology into a powerful narrative focused on cross-cultural integration and human progress. He combined an overwhelming affection for China with the glowing confidence that its scientific values remained essential for the future of humankind. Since he believed that scholarly study, political principle, and social responsibility were necessarily connected, he saw his mission in Science and Civilisation as providing the world with access to the wisdom of China. As he explained, "I think that everyone who undertakes a big inter-cultural job like this must naturally project his own vision of beliefs in doing so--it is his opportunity to preach (and I use the word advisedly) to his own and later generations." 4

Any scholar working on such a spacious scale is open to attack on many fronts. From the appearance of the first volume, Needham was criticized for his methodology, his Marxist premises, his understanding of Chinese culture, and his insistent equation of science and technology. 5 In particular, he was faulted for claims related to the comparative [End Page 266] historical framework which he employed in his study. Needham asserts that scores of Chinese innovations were transmitted to the West, including observational astronomy, efficient equine harness, equal temperament in acoustics, the mechanical clock, the hot-air balloon, the binomial theorem, the magnetic compass, grid maps, and systematic alchemy. 6 Some reviewers chalked this up to "the exaggerations of a lover." 7 It was far more than that, however. In Needham's view, the Far East's precedence and influence were intrinsic to the nature of world history, to the cultural dialectic played out between China and the West. Technological innovations did not disrupt Chinese civilization, which remained secure in its imperial structure and Confucian principles. Yet when those innovations flowed into Europe, they overturned its social and intellectual order, stimulated capitalism, inspired the Scientific Revolution, and were a proximate cause of Westerners establishing world hegemony in the period from the doubling of the Cape of Good Hope by Vasco da Gama in 1498 to British aggression against China in the Opium War (1839-42). "Thus did the inventiveness of the Chinese reverberate and recoil across the length of the Old World." 8

For Needham, China and the West are antithetical in their values and social dynamics, the Yin and Yang of the Eurasian hemisphere. A vision of world history based upon their relationship shaped the making of Science and Civilisation, which may be regarded as a celebration of Chinese accomplishments which also functions as a critique of Western civilization. Needham's conception of world history has gone unnoticed, however, and most readers certainly are not aware...